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Friday, February 3, 2006

The Greater Offense To Islam

Click Here for today's Picture. WARNING, disturbing graphic image.

Most are probably aware of the recent controversy over some cartoons of Muhammad (pbuh) published in a Danish newspaper and several others in Europe (one of which is the pictured in the link above). The Wikipedia article on the matter covers it fairly well. Several newspapers again published the images after the first protests to make a statement in support of free speech. So today, tens of thousands of Muslims marched in protest, demanding "vengeance" for what they found offensive. Diplomats from Egypt, it seems, have even asked the Danish government to do something about it, but the Danish apparently have a free press and will not.

So many in the middle east live under governments that do not allow for freedom of the press or for freedom of speech. To many of them, the very idea of a free press is nonsensical, if not sacrilegious. Others may mistakenly believe that all press functions under the same review as their own, and so sees this as an endorsement by those nations’ government. The notion that delegates would suggest to a government that they should curtail such expression underscores the fact that even the leadership in these nations is wholly ignorant of what we consider to be a most sacred right.

So here we have a very specific clash of two ideals; each of them held sacred. To Muslims the graphic portrayal of Muhammad (pbuh) is offensive to their beliefs. To those living in free nations with a free press, the freedom of speech and the tolerance for the views of even those we dislike is a sacred right; seen as absolutely essential to a free society (which, by the way, makes Google’s assisting in the oppression of the Chinese people through political censorship all the more disturbing).

I personally would normally refrain from providing images of Muhammad (pbuh), simply out of respect for the religious beliefs of others. Nor do I plan to do something like this again for that same reason. It is senseless to inflame for its own sake. Most religion and many other philosophic pursuits are attempts to know Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, as misguided as many of them may be in their approach. As such, I have been trying to cultivate a respect for those efforts and those who undertake them, even if I may be critical of various aspects and means about them.

I wanted to write about this controversy but I wasn't sure whether I should publish the image above as a statement in support of free speech, or whether I should show restraint and respect for the beliefs of others. Normally I would choose the latter, but then I saw the reports on CNN where they themselves had digitally masked over the pictures they were reporting on.

This masking actually lead to an inability for CNN to convey the story properly. If I couldn’t see the images, I couldn’t get a sense of the artists intent. Were they just pictures or were they caricatures? How mean was the expression on Mohammed’s (pbuh) face? Were there racial elements in the caricature? All of these things were things that were important to grasp the full impression of what was going on, and they were being kept from me.

I couldn't escape the sense that this wasn't merely showing respect, but that CNN had been cowered by the threats of violence, and that is simply unacceptable. When these things prevent people from fully understanding what is happening it goes beyond mere respect and begins to interfere with our freedom of information.

Some particular Muslims choose to sacrifice themselves in airplanes and with suicide bombs for what they believe to be ideals. With free speech, we all make a sacrifice as well. We know that allowing free speech means that others will be able to say and publish things we find horrible. Those who understand the importance of free speech to a society are willing to make this sacrifice for the benefit to freedom and justice such a right provides. If these specific Muslims were more aware of the critical importance and benefit of free speech to a society, would they be as courageous in making sacrifices for this ideal?

Then today, when I saw today that such a huge number of Muslims (tens of thousands according to the article I read) were marching about these cartoons, it solidified for me which direction was justified and I decided to publish the image above. These marches made me realize that it is not simply a few deviants in the Muslim world who are misguided in their values and their sense of proportion, but a huge number of them.

I would very much like to point out that there are also a huge number of Muslims who would have nothing to do with terrorism and who would never chant Osama Bin Laden's name or call for killings. For this reason, I regret if the image above is offensive to those Muslims, but I think the overriding issues here require that I show it. For me not to show it at this point would be to cower under the will of thugs as I feel CNN has done. Furthermore, there may be many readers who haven’t seen the exact images yet, and seeing them is integral to conveying what this is about.

In fact, most of the thousands of Muslim marchers protesting these cartoons are not terrorists either. But my point here is something else. If you clicked the above link you might have noticed another curious image to the left of the cartoon above. That is the image of engineer Paul Johnson, who was beheaded by Muslim fundamentalist terrorists on June 18, 2004; only one of many. These beheadings of live civilians who were kidnapped, involve the sawing off of their heads as they scream in pain. Along with that, the attackers are often heard chanting Allah's name as they cut.

Wouldn't this be a greater offense to Islam than a cartoon? Why is it that tens of thousands of Muslims did not march in response to this?

I certainly don't think that most Muslims think the beheadings were alright. Indeed many did condemn them. But the juxtaposition of these two very different degrees of response illustrate a perverse lack of proportionality in the mindset of many Muslims. This is but one symptom of a rampant sickness within the Muslim faith. It is a sickness that has been around for a long time, and will continue to come to a boil as cultures collide around the globe.

But this sickness can also be found within other faiths, political ideologies, cultures, and individuals. It is a sickness that claims to know ultimate truth with ultimate certainty. This sickness can be found wherever people would assert their own personal philosophy or religion over those of their fellow human beings, often through political power and/or violence.

This sickness exists where gunmen kill healthcare providers at abortion clinics. It lives in those who would advocate that state employees in public schools should lead children from diverse backgrounds in the religious observances of their choosing. It exists wherever a person is beaten, fired, denied the ability to serve his country, or denied the ability to marry because of his sexual orientation. It exists where the obvious scientific understandings provided by overwhelming evidence are ignored and distorted in order to promote myth, under the mistaken impression that one cannot exist beside the other; and these delusions are forced into public classrooms masquerading as science. It exists where racist supremacists spread hate and violence, or even more subtle and insidious discrimination. The symptoms of this sickness are zealousness, close mindedness, intolerance, ignorance, and hatred.

Thanks to a lack of information about the foundational principles of personal liberty, mixed with oppresive regimes and radical factions within their midst, and international economic and social pressures from the outside, this sickness is very obvious and rampant in Muslim populations; but it is not exclusive to them. My purpose in providing these images, and in comparing the beheadings with this cartoon controversy, is not to say, "look at these hypocrites!" Nor is it to rekindle hatred in your mind at the thought of the beheadings. Such atrocities are not new in history and many religions and cultures have taken their turn with them. In addition, there are many other types of sicknesses that our western societies have in large measure, such as materialism, gluttony, and often oppressive or unfair international economic policies.

Instead we must see that the sort of sickness on display within the Muslim faith is a problem we must all address, and we must begin with traces of that sickness in ourselves. We can continue to try and teach people the central importance of a free press and the sacrifices required for the ideal of freedom of speech. We can also condemn the hypocrisy of marching over a cartoon and not gory executions of the innocent. We need not yield to evil or to oppression, but as we fight it we must do so with a degree of compassion and the humility that we too are afflicted.

Christianity teaches that we are all born with the tainted blood of sinners. Regardless of one’s belief regarding the creation myth surrounding this belief, it is clear the early writers of it recognized that we all share the same proclivities and weaknesses. Therefore we could all have been different if born in a different time, a different place, or under a different flag. The Stoics believe that all of the universe is interconnected into one whole and eastern religions also note that separation is a delusion. What affects one will affect the other. What happens to the Muslim affects us. We cannot help but be tainted by this sickness and be tempted to respond in kind.

However, understanding this truth and finding a workable solution are not as linked as we would wish. The events of the past several years are likely to be the prelude to a grand showdown between our past and our future; between mysticism and modernism; between secular ideals and theological commandments. There is no guaranty that one will prevail over the other. There have been both dark ages and enlightenments in the past, and likely will be more of each in the future.

How do we manage these conflicts when our adversaries seem so intent upon destroying and/or dominating us? How do we reach understanding when they seem to feel the same? Surely there is an alternative to outright destruction, but it takes all sides to avoid that. To be sure, working for political justice from our end can help encourage the same on the other side. But what about more profound and original approaches? What about philosophic outlooks on this sort of problem which have practical application? I think we may need to look deeper into our many sources of wisdom on these things to come up with an answer - I hope we can.


NOTE: For some reason, the comments section on my blog seems to be nonfunctional at the moment. I will therefore post comments below for now...

John Vesia:
That image of Paul Johnson is going to haunt me for some time, but your point is well taken- how some people can be offended by a cartoon, but not by the taking of an innocent life. Terrorism is the ultimate ignorance.

DT Strain:
Thanks John. Maybe I shouldn't have posted that image without some kind of click or warning. It's not merely the taking of a life that I find ironic, but the fact that it was done in the name of Allah, which one would definitely think should be a direct offense to Islam from the point of view of those Muslims who distance themselves from these attacks. That's why I think the juxtaposition of these two incidents points out the nature of the sickness I spoke about (one which lies in many places, even outside the Muslim community).

Jack Death:
Hey, DT, what's up?I just read your post over at philosophy strain. I applaud you for putting up these pictures... [Jack and I have a longer discussion, portions of which I may post at a later date with his permission]

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